Tolly’s ramble on spuds and birds…

Waiting for the first of any crop to harvest is a bit like waiting for buses – all or nothing.

Most crops only actually produce for a few weeks, beans and peas maybe only for two weeks and if it is hot/dry even less than that. So you wait for what seems like ages for a crop to reach maturity and suddenly one day there it is all in one hit. You have to pick it and sell the crop before it gets over-mature, with beans it is only at its peak for a few days, things like lettuce can hang on a bit longer, depending on variety this could be up to 3-4 weeks before it bolts – runs away to seed.

Now then, spuds are a different ball game altogether. The seed we saved from last year’s crop, carefully stored in trays away from frost but with some light to keep the sprouts short and tough. Planted in mid -April, two weeks later than the ideal date. Then they were weeded and ridged up a couple of times; all done by me buzzing along on the tractor.

The very first spuds are dependant on specialist varieties that produce tubers early, this is at the expense of yield, so you need to plant a lot to get much back. But the real bonus with spuds as a crop is that you don’t have to harvest them as soon as they are ready, they can stay in the ground for quite a long time. The early ones will continue to gain yield for a few weeks, until they stop growing, this is when they cease to become a “new potato” as the skins begin to toughen up.

This year, despite the coldest spring ever, we have produced an excellent crop only a few days later than usual and conditions are suitable for harvest by machine. We still have the back breaking task of picking them up from the ground, but at least we don’t need to dig them by hand in the way we had to last year with soil too wet to drive over.

Good time to throw a piece in about the weather. Not the usual moan that farmers love to revel in, but more a sigh of relief as for once the weather had been pretty good over the past few months. It may well have been colder than usual with some very late frosts, but there have been fairly long dry periods which are great for getting things done, so we have been able to plant and sow on schedule. This is very useful as with over 300 sowings/plantings in a season it is easy to get a long way behind if you get continuous wet weather. Odd days of rain have mostly come at the right time in the right amounts, reducing the tiresome need to irrigate. But above all else, it has been a fairly sunny few months with good light levels and this is more important than just about everything else, plants really need sunshine.

The birdlife around here is a constant source of interest to us working on the land; you get to know particular birds that hang around waiting for an opportunity to have a free feed. The Robin that pops out of the same piece of hedge to pick up a worm that you disturb whilst forking up a stubborn leek, doing so for decades.

On the edge of one of our fields is a pair of ancient oak trees, well over 400 years old. One of them is gnarled and half dead with a huge cavern in its base – big enough to step into. For children it is a magical fairy den. Within these trees there are the regular birds that I have got to know over the years, a pair of Little Owl can be heard shrieking away at times and they flit down to the ground around the tree to collect beetles for their young safely tucked up in a hole in a broken branch.

A pair of Pied Wagtails have had a nest in another rotten hole in a lower branch. They are out following the tractor as soon as they hear it, collecting up insects from the freshly turned soils. A pair of handsome jet black and very shiny Crows are always around, their nest is way up near the top of the tree and it is the same nest that was here when I started on the field over a quarter of a century ago. To me all Crows look the same so I had assumed that they were the same pair but have latterly started to question that, as it is hard to imagine the same pair of birds living so long. So I decided that they have to be the progeny of the original birds.

Last week at one of our many farm walks this subject came up and one of the walkers, who knew a thing or two about ornithology, reckoned that crows can live to be 100 years old! So maybe they are original pair that have been following our activities in the field for decades, rearing several chicks each year and for the most part being efficient predators for a range of potentially harmful soil pests.

Occasionally though, they are not quite so loved, a few weeks ago I was re-sowing the sweet corn, the earlier sowing having rotted off due to cold soil and my over exuberance at trying for an early crop (some years it works). So I was dropping the seed in via the tractor and a high tech piece of 30 year old kit that drops two seeds every ½ metre only to see the crow family following me along the rows pulling out the seed and eating it! Not a new problem, it has been happening for years which is why we always cover the area with expensive crop covers until the seed is well up. But what is new, is the speed at which they homed in on the crop before I had time to install the covers. They knew exactly where the seed was even though it was 2”under the soil, I suspect they can smell it. I reckon this is a newly learnt skill, I suppose if you live that long you get to learn a thing or two.

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